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Cooking for One

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Please post your questions here -->> Q&A

Cooking for One

By: Ya-Roo Yang (Bond Girl)

General Comments

Cooking for one can be the most rewarding and challenging of tasks. Most recipes make around four to eight servings and quite often they cannot be cut down. Solo cooks also find that a lot of food goes to waste even when they purchase the minimal quantities needed for a recipe. And, if you live in New York City, you can probably factor in the challenge of a pint size kitchen, which means limited storage space and mobility.

That said, there are lots of advantages to cooking for one. The first and foremost is money. During my early years as a grad student, cooking for one was a survival skill. I learned to exercise my innate creativity on my repertoire of rice and cabbage recipes. These days, even though my diet has expanded to include other food groups or at least other vegetable groups, there’s still no arguing on the money you can save by cooking at home.

The other reason for cooking for oneself, and perhaps a better reason, is that sometimes when you want something done right, you just gotta do it yourself. This is true even for urbanites like me. While you can practically get anything your taste buds desire on the island of Manhattan, that “anything” may not include decent Cajun food, decent Mexican food or your grandmother’s famous chicken stew that you happened to have the recipe for. So, if you want a bowl of gumbo, you may just have to make it yourself.

Bio

I started to cook for myself when I was a young starving reporter. Later as an extension of my adult education, I trapeze through several cooking schools in Europe, but couldn’t remember learning anything useful. Now I am a banker living in New York City, and believe cooking for myself as one of the greatest pleasures in life.

Introduction

So, you want to cook for yourself. Well, the good news is that anyone who can follow a recipe can cook reasonably well. If you screw up, there is no one there to judge you on your culinary skills but you. Additionally, when you are cooking for yourself, you can afford to buy more expensive ingredients. Early this spring, when I was experimenting with sea beans ($20/lb) and raw tuna, I was able to get away with spending less than $1 for all the sea beans I needed and maybe $2-$3 for small pieces of Sushi grade Tuna, since there is only so much one person can eat.

The bad news is that cooking for yourself is a lot harder than cooking for you and five of your friends. Just open up an issue of Gourmet or Bon Appetit, and you will find that most recipes serve four to eight people, and cutting down a recipe seems to require an advance degree in Mathematics. What do you do if a recipe that serves four calls for one egg? How do you beat that quarter eggwhite into stiff peaks so you can enjoy that goat cheese soufflé on top of your frisee salad? Go to a supermarket, and you will find that most foods are packaged for a family. You may buy the package of four lamb chops for a dinner, but what do you do with the other three?

This is a simple course that will help you navigate issues like living with a small kitchen, purchasing and planning for minimal wastage, storing excess food, scaling recipes and reinventing spares and leftovers.

Objective

While you may not achieve the culinary stratosphere of four-star cuisines every night, you will probably learn enough to get to the mezzanine of some pretty good home cooked meals at your leisure.

Strategies for Cooking for One

There are basically two ways you can go about cooking for yourself. One way is to plan a week’s worth of quick, efficient dinner menus and shop accordingly. This is great, if you know what you like, and don’t often change your mind, or if you live in an area or work in a job where a trip to the supermarket is a special effort. The other way is to shop more spontaneously, and prepare for a dish you really want to try, or experiment with whatever catches your eye at the market, and cook your way around it. This is usually how I like to shop, but it will only work if you have a well-stocked pantry, and are willing to make a few additional trips to the supermarket for spur-of-the-moment inspirations. Here is how this strategy may work:

On Saturday, I get an incredible craving for a cioppino, which requires:

- 1 Onion,

- 1 clove of garlic,

- a stalk of leek

- 1/2 a large chopped green pepper or 1 very small chopped green peppers

- 1 or 2 potatoes

- 1 tbs of tomato paste

- 1 large tomato

- 1 stalk of carrot

- Some orange rind

- Clam Juice (or fish stock)

- A bouquet garni

- A pinch of saffron

- Assorted fish and shellfish.

While I can get away with buying one of everything and maybe about 1/4 lb of shrimps, squid, scallops, and about 1/2 dozen clams, I decide to get a quarter pound each of squid and scallops and half a pound of shrimp, and a dozen clams. And, anyone who’s visited the supermarket knows that the leeks are three stalks to a bunch and the carrots came in a large bunch.

On Sunday, I may make a vichyssoise soup to use up the leek and the potatoes since this keeps in the freezer. I may make a big batch of it and keep it in the freezer (as a side note, you don’t want to heat up anything that contains cream, so if you are making a creamy soup, make everything only up to the point that you would add the cream, and finish it with the cream when you are re-heating it). Monday dinner is Pasta alle Vongole to use up the extra clams. Tuesday night, I’ve had enough of fish and decide to get some duck. A quick poached duck and citrus-spiced carrots is easily assembled. On Wednesday, there are still some baby carrots left and the green pepper is starting to look watery, so I get some some string beans and Asian vegetables and throw the whole thing into a Thai curry. On Thursday, I discover the shrimp in the back of my freezer, and decide to pan sear it with some chili powder and toss that with a few orange slices on a bed of greens. Friday, the remaining duck gets roasted, and I can pair it with the rest of the Asian vegetables I have from Wednesday night. Or, may be I’ve earned the right to eat out?

If you are short on time, a little bit of planning helps. Certain foods can be pre-cooked to save time. A long complicated recipe may be prepared over several days and assembled when you want it, components of which can be used in other foods. Consider, for example, a recent recipe that appeared in Food Arts: Grouper Huchinago with arroz verde, cilantro sauce and tomatillo salsa. The recipe is split into four parts: It includes the grouper, which is marinated for four hours, tomatillo salsa, the chimichurri sauce and green rice. I may make the green rice and chimichurri sauce one day, and the grouper and tomatillo on the day I want to assemble them. Extra green rice is then recycled to make a vegetable burrito a few days later and the remaining salsa is then kept in a jar to use on other fish or meat.

One thing I learned from my restaurant friends is that you can save a lot of time and agony by pre-cooking certain things. For myself, I usually spend my Sunday afternoon making sauces and side dishes that I can use during the middle of the week. What I make depends on what’s in season. On a typical summer Sunday I might make the following:

- Mashed potatoes

- Roasted baby carrots

- Minted sugar snap peas

- Blanched spinach.

None of them takes much time, but they make great sides to a piece of roasted chicken or pan-seared fish. Or you can toss them on a salad. They keep pretty well in the fridge. You can flavor the mashed potatoes by stirring in some basil or parsley puree, and the spinach can be heated with some garlic and olive oil. If I feel like spending a bit more time in my kitchen I might even make some vegetable couscous or ratatouille and keep it in the fridge. Pre-cook food will also make living with a small kitchen easier; as you will have less going on at once and can assemble dishes at your leisure.

Another timesaving tip is to use fresh pasta. While it costs a little more, it cooks in two minutes and a typical box, which sells for $3.00, can be divided into four servings.

I don’t recommend planning more than a week in advance as, unless you have a cryo-pack or tons of freezer space, food loses its flavor when it sits in your refrigerator for too long and you are more likely to encounter spoilage.

Whatever you decide to do, try to think about a series of dishes that share ingredients. For example, if you have lamb stew on Sunday night, you might want to have pasta with spicy tomato sauce on Monday night, which will use the extra tomatoes and onions you bought for the lamb stew, and pan seared skate with glazed carrots on Tuesday night, to use the spare carrots you have on hand... Well, you get the idea.

Scaling the Recipes

As most recipes are designed to serve an even number of people, scaling down a recipe is basically an exercise in arithmetic. Typically if the recipe is for a whole fish or a whole chicken, I will substitute with either a filet or a cutlet of proportional weight. For example, if a three-pound chicken serves four people, I might use a 3/4 to 1/2 pound piece of chicken cutlet. If the recipe calls for an egg and you only need 1/2 or 1/4 of it, take one egg, beat it and measure out the proper amount. Unless, you have the palate of Alain Ducasse, a reasonable approximation in cooking usually won’t yield disastrous results -- as long as what you are making does not require transforming anything into airy freestanding custard form. Anything that changes liquid into airy freestanding custard forms like a freestanding puddings or soufflés usually requires precision in the proportion of dry and solids. So, unless you are obsessively compulsive about measurements, leave those things to when you have company.

The same goes for most desserts. With the exception of pies, tarts and cookies, most things that require baking in the oven – or, worse, baking in a water bath -- cannot be scaled down. This is not to say you can’t add desserts to the mix. You can scale down desserts like Panna Cotta, Puddings that sits in cups or glasses, and Parfaits to two servings, if not a single serving. Most pies and tarts can be scaled down to two serving portions and baked into single- serving tartlet pans. If you absolutely must have a certain cake, make the full portion and bake it into individual cake forms and freeze what you don’t eat immediately. Cakes usually keep in an airtight container for up to one month. As for soufflés, you can spoon the prepared the soufflé batters in individual ramekins and freeze them. The trick here is to make sure your oven temperature is up to par before you put the soufflé in to bake. Here is how an 8-serving tart recipe can be scaled down to serve two:

Santa Rosa Plum Galette from an NY Times article by Melissa Clark, adapted from Aqua at the Bellagio

Original Recipe (serves 8)..................Scaled Down Recipe (serves 2)

Crust:.................................................Crust:

1 cup + 1 Tbs cake flour.....................1/4 cup + 1/2 tsp cake flour

3/8 cup + 2 Tbs all purpose flour........1/8 cup all purpose flour

1 tsp sugar.........................................1/4 tsp sugar

1/4 tsp salt.........................................Small pinch of salt

1 cup unsalted butter.........................1/4 cup unsalted butter

8 oz cream cheese (1 pkg).................2 oz cream cheese (1/4 pkg)

Filling:.................................................Filling:

1 1/4 cup blanched sliced almonds.....1/4 cup blanched sliced almonds

1/2 cup + 1 Tbs sugar.........................1/8 cup + a pinch of sugar

1/2 cup butter.....................................2 Tbs butter

3 large eggs........................................1 extra egg

1/4 cup flour........................................1/8 cup flour

1 tsp vanilla extract.............................1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Pinch of salt.........................................Pinch of salt

10 ripe Santa Rosa plums....................2-3 ripe Santa Rosa plums depending on size

Raw sugar for sprinkling......................Raw sugar for sprinkling

The proportions are not exact, but the differences in results are minimal.

cooking4one1.jpg

Storage

The solo cook cannot avoid storing ingredients. Also, certain foods have such short seasons that you want to preserve them. I spend most of my late summers roasting and canning tomatoes, so I can have roasted tomato sauces on my pasta all year long. The same goes for shucked corn, which stores well in double Ziploc© freezer bags, so I can have sweet corn well into the winter. Even though chefs like Norman Van Aken tout the virtues of roasted chili, I am usually too lazy to look for scotch bonnet peppers in the middle of the winter, so there are usually some frozen ones in my freezer and pickled ones in my fridge. Typically, anything that is acidic will keep its color and last longer in your fridge. So, if you want to keep food for a while it is best to stick to a citrus or vinegar marinade. When it comes to fresh food, how long your food will last typically will depend on where and how you buy your food. A quick survey at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan yielded the following opinions and observations:

- Milk in a glass bottle will typically last a week if you minimize the time that it spends outside the refrigerator.

- Chicken and eggs can last up to a month in the freezer if you double-wrap them..

- Beef and other meats will last two weeks in a Ziploc© bag in the freezer.

- Fish is best stored on a plate covered in a plastic wrap. It can last up to three days in a refrigerator, and up to a week in the freezer, but it may lose some flavor.

- Shellfish like clams, oysters and mussels will last up to a week in the refrigerator but should not be covered.

- Bacteria forms in fresh fruit juices very quickly so don’t keep fresh juices around for more than two days.

- Vegetables like squash, cukes and eggplants will last three to four days when refrigerated.

- Hard cheeses typically last longer if stored in an airtight Ziploc bag

- Fresh herbs (and many otherwise fragile vegetables and some leafy greens) can last up to a week stored inside an airtight Ziploc-type bag made of a special porous plastic.

- Soft cheese will last three to four days if you change the plastic wraps frequently. Hard cheeses typically last longer if stored in an airtight Ziploc© bag.

- Fresh herbs (and many otherwise fragile vegetables and some leafy greens) can last up to a week stored inside an airtight Ziploc-type bag made of a special porous plastic.

The recent issue of Cooks Illustrated has a review of all the popular storage containers, including including the VacSet line of storageware that comes with a pump that removes the air from a sealed container. This is great if you have a large fridge with plenty of storage space, which I suspect that most of us city dwellers lack. Therefore, when it comes to storage, a little bit of common sense goes a long way. Cooked food will last longer than raw food. When in doubt, put it in the freezer, and double wrap it to prevent freezer burn. If it looks spoiled, chances are it is, and tossing it out may save you a trip to the doctors and some pretty undignified conversation with the porcelain bowl.

Reinventing Excess Supply or Leftovers

Being from extremely frugal Taiwanese stock, I am of the belief that nothing should go to waste. As a solo cook, you will often have excess food and not know what to do with it, or you may make a lot of something, like a huge leg of lamb, and grow tired of it before you have consumed it all. The first issue is easier to deal with, as uncooked food will give you more flexibility. Here is a general rule of thumb: The longer the food stays in your fridge, the more you have to do to it to make it edible. A case in point is the Southern dish, Smothered Chicken, which came from the plantation days when slaves would get old chicken that they had to smother or cook for a long time to make it edible. My advice in reinventing old excess supply is to look for recipes from tropical places, where food spoils faster than in cooler climates. Leftover chicken cutlets may be turned into Jerk Chicken. Fish and shrimp can be tossed into a seafood gumbo. Vegetables can be tossed into chili or made into a vindaloo. While this is not the place for me to give you specific recipes, here are some progressions of transformations you might find helpful in re-inventing the excess:

............................Fresh......................After a few day..........After a week

Fish/shellfish.......Tartar or Tiradito.....Pan seared or...........If frozen, canned or

...........................................................roasted.....................smoked or make fish

............................................................................................stew

Poultry................Poached or pan......Baked, barbecued......Smothered in sauce

...........................seared....................or spice-rubbed..........or stews.

Meat...................Pan fried.................Roasted, marinated....Ground into patties,

.............................................................................................soups and stews

Vegetables.........Eaten raw or...........Stir-fried, braised........In a curry or

...........................steamed.....................................................marsala sauce.

Of course, anything really old, with the exception of fish, belongs in a stock (see FG’s course of stock and stock making).

If you cooked too much food, like a large ham hock or a huge roast, reinventing leftovers becomes a totally different issue. Firm fleshed fish or shellfish can usually be ground or picked apart to make Bacalao, Quenelles, or wrapped into a dumpling. You can make sandwiches or salad from meats like venison or beef. Michelle Bernstein of Azul in Miami once published a wonderful recipe that puts pieces of oven roasted beef on grilled bread with avocado and corn salsa. Poultry are best when thrown into your udon noodles or tossed with olive oil and pasta or wrapped in wonton wrappers and deep fried. The key here is to look for recipes that require you to pre-cook the food. And, you can always make stews, but that would be boring.

Small kitchen

My current kitchen measures 7 feet by 7 feet, which many New Yorkers consider a normal size. Living in a small space means that any excess clutter is out of the question, and that goes for kitchen gadgets as well. So here is my list of basic equipment, assuming that you plan to leave desserts to the power of Hagen Daaz:

- A chef’s knife

- A paring knife

- A steel to balance the edges of your knives.

- A cutting board or a set of cutting boards.

- A frying pan

- A stock pot

- A sauce pan

This is what I started with when I first moved into my own apartment. If space is no issue and you like to make desserts, you may want to add:

- A food processor

- An electric mixer

- Some individual sized soufflé dishes, cake rings and tartlet forms.

In addition you might want to have a well-stocked cupboard. My idea of a well-stocked cupboard contains:

- Extra Virgin Olive Oil

- Vinegar

- Dried spices and herbs: thyme, bay leave, oregano, rosemary, curry powder, turmeric, cumin, paprika, cloves, cinnamon.

- Sea salt

- Pepper

- Rice and grains

- Flour

- Cornmeal

- Sugar

In addition, you might want to keep butter and cream in your fridge. One last word, when living in a small space, shopping for one means exercise discipline. It’s a little like dieting or spending $800 on a pair of shoes, ask yourself (1) what can you do with it? (2) Do you really need it, (3) Can you store it? Therefore, just because the chicken is on sale of $0.65 a pound, it doesn’t mean that you should buy it. Spend the money instead on a bag of fleur de sel -- it will last you forever, won’t take up too much space and will work wonders for your food.

When disaster strikes/When you have visitors

No disasters really. You can always order take out or make extra trips to the supermarket.

Follow Up

Now I’ve given you the general outline, I hope I piqued your curiosity. I will be available all day on 8/28 for Q&A.

Please post your questions here -->> Q&A

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